Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Structure and Spontaneity Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

by Andre · 5 Comments

OktoberfestNot everyone needs a structured task management system. If you live on a farm or a monastery, you’re probably familiar enough with your daily routine, can be reasonably certain that it’s not likely to change, and don’t expect many interruptions to take you off course. For the rest of us, it helps to have at least some level of organization, ranging from a simple To Do list to a full system for tracking projects, next actions, appointments, reference material, and lifestyle goals.

Do we really “need” any of this? Why not just throw away the calendar and live in the moment? Checking a day planner several times a day seems like a way to remind ourselves of everything we haven’t done. Deep down, we know we can’t do it all, so why drag all of those reminders around?

Acting spontaneously

You’re never obligated to do the things on your list. If something occurs to you that’s more important than anything on your list, that’s what you should be doing. I do my weekly reviews on Sunday mornings, and at least 80 percent of the time, I spend the next several hours doing things that aren’t in my system, as they occur to me.

There are a few reasons for this.

  • On a Sunday, many of the next actions that come up during the weekly review have to be done on a weekday. That’s one of the reasons I choose to do weekly reviews on Sunday: I can concentrate on defining my work without getting lured into actually doing it. Monday morning, I can hit the ground running.
  • I know that anything that’s not a hard landscape item that can only be done that day can wait. Discretionary tasks don’t go on my calendar, so when a task is a calendar entry, I don’t have to reevaluate whether or not I need to do it. If it’s on my calendar, it’s time-dependent; otherwise it goes on my next action list. An action list shows you not only what you can choose to do, but just as importantly, everything else you can choose not to do.
  • I don’t spend the day wondering what I’m not doing. Since I’ve just done the weekly review, I know what I’m not doing, so I never have the sense that I might be missing something. If I’m in doubt, I can spend 15 seconds scanning my system to reassure myself.But in almost every case, I have absolutely nothing on my mind. Everything that was on my mind is now in the system, so I can turn my full attention to other people and other things.

During the week, at any point in time, there’s a 60 percent chance that I’m doing something that’s on my lists, and a 40 percent chance that I’m doing something that’s not on my list. Those off-track tasks are still productive; they just aren’t in the system, because they occurred to me in the moment. If they take longer than two minutes, and I can do them in my current context but am doing something else at the moment, I’ll write them down on a junior legal pad without entering them into the system. Whatever’s left by the next time I process my in-basket goes into the system, but before the processing session, I’ll often just work from the legal pad.

List aversion

For some people, even the idea of working straight from a capture list is too much rigor. Why is it necessary to write anything down in the first place?

It’s simple. Whenever I’m doing something, that’s the only thing I want to be thinking about. If something pops into my head that’s not related to what I’m doing, I have three options. I can summon the willpower to stop thinking about it. This is about as effective as trying to not think about pink elephants — you have to think about them in order to carry out the instruction. I can switch to doing the thing I’m now thinking about, which is clearly inefficient with actions that take more than a minute or two. Or I can write it down, allowing my mind to let it go, since I know I’ll get back to it later.

People often complain that lists oversimplify situations, but that misses the point of making them. Lists don’t replace thinking. They collect the stuff you need to think about or the results of what you’ve already thought about. As points of input and output, lists are means to an end, not an end in themselves. Lists are reductionist by design, intended to distill the complex to the simple.

If a problem can’t be resolved by a finite set of concrete, physical actions that can go on a list, then the thinking about that problem is unfinished. Even something like, “End world hunger” can be broken down into a project with next actions (even if it’s as mundane as “Get a can of soup for donation”). I suspect that anyone resisting a written agenda of action items is more attached to problems than solutions. There’s no accountability for any specific action that would carry things forward.

Don’t live in the emotionally comforting but unfulfilling world of “potential” by not putting the things that matter to you in a place where you can reflect on them. A good system makes clear what needs to be done right now and what can wait. Ironically, once you get things out into a system that allows you to see everything in a snapshot, and know that you’re life is on track, it becomes much easier to confidently follow your instincts and do the unplanned things.

(Photo credit: Joachim S. Müller)

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Tags: GTD · Productivity


  • Jarrod - Warrior DevelopmentNo Gravatar // Sep 30, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    I liked what you said about in the list aversion section.

    Lists are a thinking tool. Use them were they are useful for you, lose them when they are not.

    If you don’t know when to use them, try it out.

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Sep 30, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    You seem to belong to the school of thought that sees productivity as a way to maximize time for what’s important, not as a way to get more work done. If this is so, then I completely agree.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Sep 30, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    @Jarrod: Too many people avoid lists for fear that they’ll be controlled by them, even though they were the ones who made the lists. It’s certainly possible to do a poor job of list making, just as it’s possible to do a poor job of anything. It’s an art and a skill that gets better with practice.

    @Vered: You’re right. I’ve never liked the results-by-volume approach to productivity. That’s why the subtitle of this blog is Explorations in thinking and doing, not Explorations in productivity.

  • Ulla HennigNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 12:06 am

    I like your habit of reviewing your list on sunday – must try that out!

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 9:52 am

    @Ulla: Doing a weekly review Sunday morning is better than mediation for clearing and calming the mind, and it makes the rest of the day extremely enjoyable. I’m actually going to move the review to Saturday to upgrade my weekend. Many GTD users prefer Friday afternoon, since it has the advantage of allowing them to still close a few loops at work before leaving, but also puts them in the right frame of mind for the weekend.

    @Vered (again): Ironically, it turns out that I was doing some SEO research a few hours after my last reply to you, and apparently, not having a prime keyword like “productivity” in my blog title or tagline really knocks the wind out my ad conversions. So I might be switching to Explorations in productivity after all!